“I hate tennis.”
This is the opening message of Andre Agassi’s biography, Open. Agassi was the son of a tyrannical father who cared for little beyond creating a tennis champion out of his little boy. Steered by his father’s heavy hand, and often against his will, Agassi rose to be the number one player in the world. To others, the top was an unachievable dream. To Agassi, it was a toxic ball of fire.
The fame, the ridicule, and the decades of living a life he despised caught up to Agassi. His anger became resentment, his resentment became rage, and his rage descended into a decision to dump crystal meth on a coffee table, cut it, and snort the powder up his nostrils with the speed of a U.S. Open serve.
Why did Agassi break under the pressure of discipline? How does his story represent so many of us?
Why We Drug Children
I hated school. The cycle of waking up early, going to school, being disciplined, feeling inadequate for not being smart, and dashing to mandatory soccer practice after school made my blood boil. Sports, music, theater, public speaking, community service. The obligatory activities never ended. The routine made me apathetic. There were so many things on my schedule as a kid that I stopped attending Bar Mitzvahs and birthday parties.
Inside the classroom, my personality wasn’t suited for the traditional education system. My math was terrible, I couldn’t follow directions, and I had the reading comprehension capacity of a squirrel. I spent most of my time behind a shield of self-protective numbness only to erupt with volcanic rage once I got home.
For years, I didn’t have the words to describe my frustration. My family shouldered the weight of my anger. Trapped in a system of heavy-handed control, I yelled at my parents in cries of violent desperation.
In retrospect, I acted out because I couldn’t be a kid. In middle school, I was sent to the principal’s office so many times that I tallied my visits on the arm rest of the chair outside his office. Still today, we dehumanize children by locking them in classes they despise with teachers who have to act as babysitters by giving them time-outs until they shut up and follow the rules.
If we did the same thing to adults between the ages of 45-60, we’d have a revolt. But when we do this to kids, we justify it as “preparing them for the real world.” First, we ignore their cries for agency. Then, we squash their curiosity with rigid curriculums like AERO and the Common Core that move too slow for the bored and too fast for the curious. Worse, the tyrannical curriculum structure teaches children to accept the world as it exists. Students can’t modify the syllabus. They have to accept it as it’s given to them. By doing so, we kill the joy of learning, strip agency away from our children, and in turn, rob them of their humanity.
We’ve stopped treating children like people.
The rigidity of childhood is a new phenomenon. It began in the 1990s, when the number of hours devoted to childcare began to rise after three decades of decline. The increase in parenting time was the largest among college-educated mothers who increased their childcare time by more than nine hours per week. Much of the culprit goes back to parents who spend two decades biting their nails about their children’s college prospects. Ivy League or failure.
Why are parents so anxious?
Why Parents Are Anxious About College Acceptances
Boomers grew up in a credentialed world where people were defined by the school on their college diploma. Students benefited from college not because of the education they received, but because of sexy diplomas and tight personal networks.
Personal networks matter too. One Union College study found that fraternity students saw a 0.25 drop in GPA, but a 36 percent rise in lifetime income known as the “Bro Wage Premium.”
Meanwhile, the average college diploma isn’t the signal of prestige it once was. The number of Americans with a college degree has risen by more than 300% since 1970, leading to credential inflation where people need more and more education just to stay in place.
The knife fight for college admission has spawned a bitter legacy debate. Now that so many people work for big companies, parents can’t always give their kids the family business. Instead, the best that parents who want to leave an easter egg for their children can do is use their legacy status to help children get into their alma mater. Some donate buildings, and others bribe the admissions officers.
More and more parents are encouraging more and more children to fight zero-sum battles like the college admissions process. This childhood rat race is packaged as ambitious, even though it actually rests behind a facade of sheep-like, anxiety-creating complacency.
How Kids Respond to Anxiety
In an article in The Atlantic, George Packer quotes an anxious seventh-grader who said, “If you fail a math test you fail seventh grade, if you fail seventh grade you fail middle school, if you fail middle school you fail high school, if you fail high school you fail college, if you fail college you fail life.”
Parents stress over college acceptance, which creates stress for teachers who teach to the test, which creates stress for kids who can’t experience the creativity of traditional childhood. According to one Pew Research study, 70% of teens list “anxiety and depression” as a major problem in their local community. Another study found that half of PhD students experience psychological distress. All these emotional struggles lead to an overmedicated society.
To their credit, my parents didn’t drug me. I had all the features of a kid who would have binged ADHD medications like shots at a New Year’s party. No matter how badly I acted, my parents never caved into the twisted logic that leads doctors to hand out prescription pills faster than candy on Halloween. For years, I looked as unhealthy as I felt. Face-peeling acne. Uncontrollable anger. No self-esteem. By middle school, my behavior was so bad that we stopped going on family trips. To silence the stress of it all, I found ways to escape reality (thank the lord for Madden and RollerCoaster Tycoon) without popping a single pill.
School taught me the wrong lessons.
As Ivan Illich wrote in Deschooling Society: “The pupil is thereby ‘schooled’ to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new.” My grade school teachers said the tough standards would prepare me for high school, my high school teachers said the tough standards would prepare me for college, and my college teachers said the tough standards would prepare me for the professional world. But it was a lie. As I sat in class, I felt like a domesticated animal, training to serve the needs of institutions instead of myself.
Kids who don’t conform to the narrow demands of the education system are diagnosed with ADHD and prescribed addictive psychoactive drugs. As Peter Gray, the author of Free to Learn, has observed, these drugs are designed to suppress a child’s instincts so they can sit down, shut up, and slave through busywork:
“Nobody knows the long-term effects of these drugs on the human brain, but research with animals suggests that one effect may be to interfere with the normal development of the brain connections that lead children generally to become more controlled, less impulsive, with age and maturity. Perhaps that helps to explain why today we see more and more cases of ADHD extending into adulthood. As with lots of psychoactive drugs, the drugs used to treat ADHD may be creating long-term dependency.”
Tragically, the growth in ADHD prescriptions has accelerated since the turn of the century. In an article called “The Drugging of the American Boy,” Ryan D’Agostino argues that many of these diagnoses are false. Today, 6.4 million children between the ages of 4-17 have been diagnosed with ADHD. Almost 20 percent of all American boys will now be diagnosed with ADHD by high school, a 37 percent increase since 2003. Instead of building a system that respects the biology of kids, we are destroying childhood — one synthetic pill at a time.
Just as high schoolers numb their passions so they can beat their classmates on the SAT, adults trade joy for money by answering emails until their head hits the pillow.
Why Adults Live for the Weekend and Binge Alcohol
New York, where I live, is defined by its live-for-the-weekend culture. Young professionals who move to New York have dreams of building fame, wealth, or power by climbing the corporate ladder. The most talented university graduates disproportionately fall into sectors like law, investment banking, and management consulting. To numb the pain of sitting at a desk for 50-80 hours per week and the Hunger Games levels of competition for a small number of competitive positions, New York’s social scene revolves around a culture of binge drinking.
Recently, I had dinner with a friend in Manhattan who is frustrated with his management consulting job and looking for a way out. We’ll call him Justin. Since the moment I met him, he’s justified his heavy alcohol consumption with unwavering persistence towards societally valued goals — good grades and a job to make his parents proud. Justin graduated top of his class in high school, magna cum laude in college, and now works for one of the big four accounting firms. In service of his job, he travels more than Carmen San Diego. In each destination, he executes the same security audit for the same kinds of companies in the same kinds of industries. Three years out of college, Justin sees no path towards autonomy or away from hyper-specialization.
Over chicken dumplings and ramen noodles, my friend said, “My parents tried so hard to make me successful but never stopped to ask if I was enjoying myself. They are proud of what I’m doing, and since I work for an impressive company, they just assume I’m happy.”
I can relate, even though I’ve only had one job (which lasted seven months). I distinctly remember the dusky December days I worked there, when the dark night came early and the winter winds blew cold. Every morning, before I stepped into the office at 9 am, I said goodbye to the blue sky of liberty. I’d push a button to the fifth floor, stammer towards my desk, and stare into my computer until half my co-workers had left and there were three stars in the sky. From Monday through Friday, I saw less than 30 minutes of sun per day.
To combat my sedentary routines, I lived for the weekend. Drinks on Friday? I’d be there. How about Saturday? You bet.
The madness of weekends made up for the lethargy of the weekdays. Instead of tying myself to a chair, I paraded around Manhattan with a choir of friends and a drink in my hand. Eventually, I learned about New York’s culture of after-work happy hours where yes-men take their edge off with Heinekens and vodka sodas.
In retrospect, I’m not proud of these habits. But I can’t blame myself. New York’s substance-ridden culture is a natural reaction to the stress and trappings of life in a 43rd-floor cubicle.
Success shouldn’t be synonymous with how good you are at forcing yourself to do what you don’t want to do. We should rebel against a world that rewards mechanical levels of specialization. In the will to succeed, we subject ourselves to toxic and health-destroying work environments. Instead of questioning our habits, we counterbalance the pain of work with a ritual of reckless bar crawls. Instead of conforming the system to human nature, we conform human nature to the system.
Too many of my close friends are on antidepressants. They also suppress the body to the mind. Most of them don’t have time to exercise, the freedom to soak up the sun, or control over how they spend their time. In the face of rising drug use, we give people antidepressants instead of re-thinking the system that leads to depression in the first place. Without the drugs, they won’t be able to tolerate their intolerable work environments.
That’s not to mention self-medication. American alcoholism is a worsening problem. Since the 1990s, the percentage of Americans who drank at all increased by nearly half, while high-risk and disorderly drinking rose by 20 percent and 12 percent respectively. Meanwhile, according to the Gallup Poll below, the number of Americans who report that drinking has been a cause of trouble in their family has tripled since 1974. Here we see a pattern among children and adults. The same routines that create high-achieving students and later, successful professionals, can cause people to respond in dangerous and unintended ways.
“The Suite Life of Zack & Cody”: It Turns Out Having Nothing But Fun Isn’t So Much Fun
Conventional wisdom says both kids and adults will waste their time if you give them total freedom. I take the opposite perspective. We underestimate the number of people who will indulge in hedonism for a short while before realizing its emptiness and embracing a life of purpose and direction.
I’m reminded of an episode of “The Suite Life of Zack & Cody,” a Disney Channel show about two hyperactive teenage boys who live in a hotel. In one of my favorite episodes, they are tired of adults who tell them what to do: “Eat your veggies,” “Do your homework,” “Don’t play hockey in the lobby.” The boys travel to an alternate reality where there are no rules, so they can do whatever they want. At first, they celebrate with reckless play. They binge on room service and gallons of Jelly Beans. Then they play basketball in the hotel ballroom. But after a few days, the endless play loses its luster. Zack and Cody miss their mother’s “do your homework” discipline and the “stop running in the lobby” strictness of the hotel manager. Bored by endless freedom, they escape the alternate reality in favor of a normal life, and a forward-learning embrace of personal responsibility.
When we discipline people against their will, we create negative repercussions. In that way, stringent rules are like the First Law of Thermodynamics. Also known as the Law of Conservation of Energy, it says that energy cannot be created or destroyed. It can only be transferred from one form to another. The First Law of Thermodynamics comes to life whenever you boil water. As you crank up the fire on the stove, heat is transferred from the stove to the kettle. You can’t cheat the laws of physics, no matter what you do. As the water boils, the kettle begins to whistle and condensation begins to build like a San Francisco fog. Likewise, suffocating a person’s free will for too long will result in harmful second-order effects for individuals and society at-large. This is the price of discipline.
My process of becoming an adult is a story of overcoming my childhood rage. I’ve learned to channel my hyperactive tendencies into healthy habits like a daily gym routine and writing on this website.
Furthermore, my vendetta against the education system has driven me to build two schools: one for adults and another for young kids. Both are responses to the tyranny of childhood education. Unlike the all-too-familiar compliance mindset of traditional schools, my schools have no grades, diplomas, or mandatory assignments. We encourage students to trust their instincts and tackle projects of their own choosing. As we do, we operate with a hand heavy enough to orient them but light enough for them to march with agency.
The Choice of Focus
Sports hold a mirror to the human condition. The beauty, the struggle, and the pain of it all. Through competition, we learn morality, patience, persistence, sacrifice, and discipline. But by hitting a small yellow ball, Agassi suffered from the cacophony of resentment that accompanies a life of hostile discipline.
“It’s no accident, I think, that tennis uses the language of life. Advantage, service, fault, break, love, the basic elements of tennis are those of everyday existence, because every match is a life in miniature. Even the structure of tennis, the way the pieces fit inside one another like Russian nesting dolls, mimics the structure of our days. Points become games become sets become tournaments, and it’s all so tightly connected that any point can become the turning point. It reminds me of the way seconds become minutes become hours, and any hour can be our finest. Or darkest. It’s our choice.”
Stuck in the depths of despair, Agassi made a choice to play instead of quit. For the first time, Agassi marched to the beat of his own drum instead of his father’s. Once he chose tennis, his mindset shifted. He said:
“Even if it’s not your ideal life, you can always choose it. No matter what your life is, choosing it changes everything.”
Moved by his decision, Agassi escaped the valley of addiction. He climbed the rankings to become the number one player in the world for a second time. This time, he did it with panache and a light spirit.
Reckless freedom is an empty enterprise. People want to be productive members of society. In the end, the eternal meaning of self-directed purpose triumphs over the hollow ephemerality of pleasure. But like Andre Agassi, people need to realize this truth through the hard knocks of personal experience.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating for a world of careless anarchy where people are slaves to their instincts. We need teachers to keep children safe and parents to keep them healthy. But children don’t need the minute-by-minute schedules of a Fortune 500 CEO.
If we want to raise healthy, high-agency children, we should give them the freedom to make decisions without removing them from the consequences of those decisions. Giving children agency now will help them avoid a dark cycle of work, pain, and reckless release in the future. Even if a life of indulgent hedonism is fun in the short-term, it ultimately leaves a void in the heart.
Thanks for Ana Fabrega for co-writing this essay with me.